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Unexpected ancestors

18 November 2016

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WHEN did the first black person come to live in our land of the Anglo-Saxons? Actually, long before any Anglos-Saxons did. In Black and British: A forgotten history (BBC2, Wednesday of last week), the first in a new series, the historian David Olusoga celebrated the earliest known black inhabitants of our island — and they are earlier, and further-flung, than most people imagine.

Many African units of the Roman armies served here, and at Burgh-by-Sands, in Cumbria, where the earliest inscription to one such soldier has survived, a new plaque was fixed to the churchyard railings to record the fact (News, 29 July 2016). In the Sussex village of East Dean, an early Roman skull has now been proved to be that of a woman of sub-Saharan origin who had spent her life in the neighbourhood of what would become Eastbourne; Mary Beard turned up to the annual village fête to unveil the new plaque recording the fact.

One of Henry VIII’s royal trumpeters was black, and clearly depicted as such on the Westminster Tournament Roll: he was John Blanke, and his plaque now stands in Royal Greenwich. Our maritime history meant that by Georgian times there were many black people living here — but where did they go?

In perhaps the most telling moment of the programme, Cedric Barber, the great-great-great-grandson of Francis Barber, Dr Samuel Johnson’s black servant and close friend, proclaimed: “We’re going around in disguise, in camouflage, we’re walking about the place.” Generations of intermarriage means that Mr Barber does not look black, proof of the false distinction between “us” and “them”. Perhaps two to three million British people are similarly descended from black Georgians, the vast majority completely unaware of the fact.

A heartwarming feature of the programme was the way that today’s locals were delighted to learn of their multi-racial past, and clearly felt that it added a further layer to their history.

In Black is the New Black (BBC2, Wednesday of last week), another programme in BBC’s “Black and British” season, a range of people from the Archbishop of York to the actor Thandie Newton to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland, talked about their experiences of early life in this country. The racism they faced was thoroughly shaming.

This new series was beautifully presented, the elegance and formality of the conception pointing up the ugly truths uncovered.

Stephen Poliakoff’s complex and layered plays attract great critical acclaim. To admit that you cannot see what is supposed to be so special about them is to prove that you do not really know anything about TV: the position, alas, in which I always find myself.

Close to the Enemy (BBC2, Thursdays) confirms my ignominy. It is rich in its conception and sumptuous to look at. But the central conceit — that after the Second World War, British Intelligence bankrolled an impossibly Grand Hotel in which former Nazis, abducted by force, are persuaded to work for Britain, all the while fighting off the War Crimes Commission — simply does not have any ring of truth about it.

The hero affects a curious drawl, unlike anything heard in the 1940s. He is, of course, impossibly insightful and effective.

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